Is your city miserly toward library books? Go for a surtax or a special book fund

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allaboutthebooksJust what can increase kids’ test scores, help cut crime, improve race relations in the post-Ferguson era, and even help delay the onset of dementia?

Clue: You’ll find them at your local library, although probably not as many as you’d like.

Yes, I’m talking about books, and unlike the lyrics in the YouTube video, “All About the Books, No Trouble,” there is trouble—lots of it.

The average U.S. library devotes only 11.4 percent of its operating budget to books and other collection items, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. And yet the Pew Foundation says they’re are a major reason why people go to the library. A whopping 25 percent of library budgets went for materials in 1942. No typos in those numbers. Yes, we’ve actually slipped that far.

In Alexandria, Virginia, my hometown, the figure is now less than 6 percent. Here’s the library’s explanation, paraphrased. We’re a high-cost area and must pay our librarians and other staffers fairly. Plus, we need such extras as guards for patrons’ security. So, sadly, when all is said and done, we can spend only about $2.50 per capita on books despite the national average being around $4.

How to increase the book budget when the library staff says every dime is already committed? Ahead are some points I’ll trot out in hopes of educating our city officials or at least citizens associations and others with influence. You may want to make similar arguments in your locality, beyond the ones you’re already using. The city budget here in Alexandria won’t be approved for some months. But it is never too early to start, especially in my city, where a community meeting on the budget is tentatively scheduled for January 12, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the library’s Beatley branch (go here for confirmation).

Surtax or dedicated fund—to forestall a race to the bottom?

Based on history, I doubt that most of the Alexandria City Council members now in office will listen to us library advocates if we don’t forge alliances with groups such as civic associations and PTAs and get the media on our side. The city budget exceeds $636 million. And yet Alexandria is spending only about $360,000 on books and other library items when a $4 per capita average would call for $600,000.  One council member has just pointed me to an op-ed telling how Fairfax County in recent years has been decimating its library budget. He didn’t quite put it this way, but I got the sense he was saying, “Keep your expectations low for book-spending in Alexandria.” I won’t. We must not race Fairfax or other localities to the bottom.

With the above in mind, we badly need a small library surtax to assure that library books aren’t lost in the budget shuffle. The surtax would provide for book spending at the national average per capita, as determined by ongoing updates from the IMLS, with the Alexandria Library encouraged to augment the surtax from the library's operating budget. Come on. Whatever that works out in millage, the tax increase would be minuscule.

alexandriatimesopinionpollLet’s put Alexandria’s miserliness toward library books in perspective. Rashad Young, our city manger, single-handedly collects $266.5K in salary alone and about $350K in total compensation—almost as much as the public library materials budget for our 150,000 residents. And remember, the $360K materials budget includes DVDs and such, not just books. The Alexandria Times ran an informal poll on Mr. Young’s performance, and 203 people had responded online by the morning of December 16, the day I took the screen shot to the right. A mere 12 percent believed he was doing “a good job.”  Not exactly a vote of confidence in Mr. Young or, in effect, the politicians who appointed him. He is about to move across the Potomac to be city administrator of Washington, D.C. And yet his salary will be “only” $295,000 in a city with four times our population, not much of a raise in relative terms. If Alexandria can let Mr. Young so egregiously overcharge, can’t it come up with a smidgen more for books through a new surtax?

Alas, City Attorney James Banks tells me: "A library surtax is not currently the subject of specific taxing authority granted by the State to local governments. Therefore, such a tax would only be possible after the passage of specific authorizing legislation by the General Assembly." Time for Virginia to pass such legislation? I certainly think so. And maybe outside Virginia, your locality can already initiate such a surtax without authorization from the State House.

The good news from Mr. Banks is that our City Council “may create and fund a special fund for any of its current services as long as the money for that special fund is generated from existing taxing authority (within the bounds of current law)." If City Council wants the all the options outlined, he'll be ready.  If the city is worried about fiscal challenges, just increase the regular tax rate a speck to pay for the library fund. Most citizens will cheer. A library book fund will be a far wiser use of their money than Young-sized salaries.

Wherever your live, why not consult with your city attorney’s office or the equivalent to determine what taxing powers exist to increase the amount for books? Again, a surtax would be best. But even a dedicated fund would help since it would give books a higher profile than they now enjoy in the typical locality’s budgetary process. A vote for or against the creation of such a fund—again, I’m proposing one to guarantee a book-related budget of at least the national average—would give voters a chance at election time to understand the values and priorities of Jane or Joe Doe Politician. Do America’s local solons really want to run so directly against library books and other collection items, especially given the items’ popularity, as documented by Pew?

Six pro-book points to make

In pressing for the surtax or special fund to increase your city’s library book budget, here are six more points that you and other library advocates might want to make:

Point #1: The right books—offered along with well-trained teachers and librarians to help students discover, absorb and enjoy them—are a rather cost-effective way to raise test scores.  See a major UK study on the benefits of recreational reading; a preview of a Scholastic Magazine report telling how kids read more if more books are around; and an old but extremely authoritative study for the International Association for the Evaluation of Reading Achievement.

"The availability of books," wrote the author of  booklet on the IEA study after analyzing test scores of 200,000 students in 32 countries, "is a key factor in reading literacy. The highest-scoring countries typically provide their students with greater access to books in the home, in nearby community libraries and book stores, and in the school." At age 9, book availability was found to have been more crucial at developing reading literacy than were small classes or past pre-school attendance.

Nothing against pre-school or decent student-teacher ratios—we need everything! But the more recreational reading, the better. That means promoting literacy not just among K-12 students but also among their main role models, their parents. We deserve well-stocked public libraries along with the school variety.

In Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, veteran educator Kelly Gallagher quotes supporting studies and writes about the virtues of creating “book floods,” as some call them, to encourage recreational reading. Gallagher misses out on some angles, such as the full potential of family literacy and of close cooperation between school and public libraries, as well as the ability of e-books to expand the range of titles matching students’ needs and interest. But Readicide is still “must” reading for public official considering a library or school budget.

Smartly, Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School has installed the OverDrive e-library app on the tablets provided to the thousands of T.C. students. Now they can download books from the Alexandria public library, not just the school library. It’s time for the library to have a big enough of a book budget to win them and their parents over with the right digital and paper titles.

DrHooverVideoScreenShot4Tablets need not be the only e-book capable devices in the house. Check out LibraryCity ‘s proposal for multigenerational “cell phone book clubs,” where books in any format would be welcome even though a major focus would be on cell phones. Other than keys or purses or wallets, the phones are the objects that Americans are most likely to carry with them. So here’s a chance to read books everywhere, in the grocery line, at the beach, you name it. Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, chief technology officer for the Alexandria City Schools, as well as a former teacher, has spoken out for the cell phone idea in a video. Jeff Scott, just appointed library director in Berkeley, California, hopes to experiment the concept there. He says the idea overlaps heavily with what he was doing in Tulare County prior to his Berkeley appointment, and I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that. In San Francisco, moreover, library patrons can choose from 11 online book clubs. The cell phone club concept would be a natural for Alexandria, where, laudably, the library not only offers traditional book clubs but also provides “book club kits” of paper books for groups of patrons to to check out to start their own clubs. Simply put, I’m talking about cell phone book clubs as a way to augment and reinvent existing initiatives, not replace them.

Point #2: Stop pitting law enforcement needs against book needs. The right books can themselves help reduce crime. One way is by building empathy, and well-done novels, able to transport readers into the worlds of their characters, are the titles most likely to do this. So should libraries offer just high-brow lit—to increase empathy and vocabularies? Of course not. “When academic reading is the only kind of reading put on our students’ plates,” warns Kelly Gallagher, “readicide occurs. As much as I love Dickens and Shakespeare, I would turn off to reading if I didn’t have a balanced reading diet that included Scott Turow or Michael Connelly.” Besides who’s to say that good contemporary genre fiction or Truman Capote-style nonfiction—with well developed characters—can’t build empathy? That said, students are more likely  to run across the very most empathy-growing books through their local libraries than by merely surfing around at Amazon for the most action-filled potboilers.

But can this really apply to crime prevention? Absolutely. As reported in The Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 19 percent of participants in a Changing Lives Through Literature program were reconvicted compared to 45 percent in the control group. But even a tiny reduction in incarceration rates would save taxpayers some nice money. Time for the library system to partner up with the police department and the courts and get a good Changing Lives Through Literature program going? The same concept, of course, would work with other city agencies, whose missions the library can help fulfill.

Point #3: The same empathy-building powers mentioned in Point #2 can also improve post-Ferguson race relations. Academic research shows that police are more likely to see African-American children as more deserving of tough treatment than whites the same age. Might some preemptive bibliotherapy for police reduce the odds of Ferguson-style incidents in Alexandria or elsewhere? The other side of the coin is that if Americans at large become more empathetic, police officers themselves are less likely to be gunned down.

I can see homeland security possibilities, too. Empathy-building books are one way for new Americans from diverse backgrounds to identify more closely with people around them and less with violence-prone political or religious groups.

Point #4: Books in many cases may be able help delay the onset of dementia. In a follow-up study, the U.K. researchers found that keen young recreational readers were more likely to read in middle age and beyond. Stronger readers are less likely to suffer early dementia. Even a tiny reduction in dementia, now as much as $215 billion yearly at the national level, could cost-justify more money spent on library books. The national figure for book spending is a pathetic $1.2 billion a year.

Point #5: We’ve got waste elsewhere in local government that we can cut to make way for a book budget that at least matches the pathetic national norm. In Alexandria, of course, the City Manager’s bloated salary should be Exhibit A. Never again must this happen. And the money saved should go for library books. Some other top officials resigned before Mr. Young did, and if their salaries and benefits were at the same outrageous levels, perhaps we can downsize them as well. 

Point #6: A surtax or dedicated fund would be one way to avoid the public’s book needs being pitted as directly against librarians’ personal needs as they have here in Alexandria. The average full-time library employee here is making around $58K, a reasonable figure in a high-cost area like D.C.—and a far, far cry from Mr. Young’s $266.5K. The existence of a dedicated library-books fund should not be used as an excuse to cut the total existing library budget of about $7 million. Libraries are and should be about much more than books. Still, the public regards books as libraries’ main calling card, and considering all the benefits, this all for the better.

Note: I’m as gung ho as ever on the idea of a national digital library endowment. But I don’t see it as the sole source of revenue for content and other library-related uses.

Update, 1:49 p.m.: In Massachusetts, to qualify for state certification, a library system for a city our size normally must devote at least 12 percent of its budget to books and other materials. Thanks to princess-smartypants on Reddit for this tidbit. And now—the inevitable question. Does Virginia have materials-percentage requirements, and if so, is Alexandria violating them? I’ll check. It the state doesn’t, it’s high time for them.

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